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March 28, 2012 at 12:18 PM

Special night for Ichiro as Mariners open season with a win

Dustin Ackley hit a home run for Seattle’s only score in regulation play, then drove home the go-ahead run in the 11th inning of a 3-1 win over the Oakland Athletics here in Wednesday’s season opener at the Tokyo Dome.
But in the end, as you may have seen from my game story, the night belonged to Ichiro.
He’d invested so much in this series emotionally coming into it and to open in front of his countrymen with four hits made this the most special opening night of his career. Not only because of the hits, he said, but the special connection he felt with fans who also realized the magnitude of the moment.
Of having the country’s biggest known sports star return in a major league uniform for the first time ever. And also, having this series to use as a showpiece to the baseball world about what the Japanese game means.
And in the end, his most enjoyable moment came when teammates told him how much they apreciated the crowd here. Members of the A’s told him the same thing on the field the many times he reached base.
“Our teammates said that about our fans,” he said. “They said they like the fans here, the atmosphere, the way they approach it that about the atmosphere. And even the players on the other side, the opponents, the A’s, said that, too. So, it’s a good experience.”
Actually, it was something more than that to him.
“To see the fans and how they react and how they welcomed the players, they’re very warm-hearted,” Ichiro said.
“It makes you cry.”
Winning pitcher Tom Wilhelmsen, who tossed two scoreless innings in relief of Felix Hernandez, was so taken by the fans he saw at his team’s first exhibition game against the Hanshin Tigers that he decided to join them. When Hanshin played the A’s on Monday, Wilhelmsen went out to the right field bleachers to join the Tigers’ supporters.
“I was kind of just hopping on the bandwagon, I guess,” Wilhelmsen said.

First, he went to buy some Tigers merchandise. He wanted a cap and sweater, but none fit him. So, he bought a Tigers scarf, towel and some small bats to bang together.
“I bought a bunch of gear, some bats, scarves and a towel and just dropped my butt down next to all those guys and just started going with it,” Wilhelmsen said. “When they scored runs, we popped our thundersticks together. It was just really cool.”
He tried to sing along with them in Japanese when the Tigers were hitting but had trouble figuring out the words.
“I couldn’t,” he said. “I was trying to but they have a different song for everything and every different player.”
None of the fans, he said, appeared to know who he was. He figures they thought he was some energetic American tourist.
Several of the Mariners have really taken to their time spent here, with one more game left to go.
The opener wasn’t the best game from an execution standpoint for the Mariners and manager Eric Wedge said afterwards that it took his team a while to get going.
For most of the night, it was the Ackley and Ichiro show with little else other than Felix Hernandez keeping his team in a tie game.
A’s manager Bob Melvin was asked whether he’d thought about walking Ackley to get to Ichiro with Brendan Ryan on third and one out.
“No, it’s Ichiro,” he said. “Not with the game he’s having right there. I might have had to walk both of them.”
Brendan Ryan was sporting an ice-wrap on his leg after the game. He got taken out hard by Collin Cowgill in the 10th inning after the latter tried to steal second. But Miguel Olivo threw him out and the Mariners lived to fight another inning.
Ryan took a while to get up after being barreled into. But he shook it off and stayed in long enough to hit a leadoff double in the 11th.
Not the prettiest win. But style points don’t count. The Mariners puled it out when it mattered and Ichiro got to have the night he’d probably dreamed of back when he heard the team would be making this trip.
Winning pitcher Wilhelmsen summed it up nicely.
“Welcome home, huh?” he said. “Obviously, a great show for us and a great show for Japan. Felix is the King of Seattle and Washington, but this is something Godly.”
Ichiro is indeed pretty big here. And after tonight, he grew a little more in the eyes of a country that adores him and had wanted to see something like this from him as badly as he wanted to supply it.

Comments | Topics: Brendan Ryan


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